Playing it Safe: 8 Basic Things All Smart Travelers Do

We all expect good things to happen when we travel for vacation or business. We will close the deal. We will sleep in. We will drink unlimited adult beverages.  But sometimes bad things happen. I have the stories to prove it.

My colleague was swindled out of nearly $100 after accepting an invitation for coffee at a stranger’s house in Accra.  A friend’s cell phone was stolen mid-trip while souvenir shopping in an open air market in Addis Ababa.  I have been grounded in Frankfurt because of weather (somewhat predictable), Hong Kong because my connecting flight did not arrive (not so predictable), and in Nairobi because because the plane was held for the Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya who was running extremely late (a gypsy fortuneteller couldn’t predict this).

Smart travelers know how to minimize risks.  As for the inevitable unpredictable situations that come with the traveling territory, add these habits to your list of rituals for a better travel experience.

Book the most direct route you can afford.  When choosing between a flight with several connections and a couple of hundred dollars, limit your connections if you can afford it.  A missed connection could have you re-booking every subsequent flight which can trim days from your trip and cause you to forfeit non-refundable hotel nights or excursions.  If you don’t have time to waste, always book the shortest route.  Fewer connections mean fewer opportunities for something to go wrong.

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Before boarding, have some local currency in hand.  There is a camp of people who won’t bother using local currency at all. For instance, in certain Caribbean countries, U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Some choose to get cash from the local ATM or a currency exchange service after reaching their destination.  While quick cash is easy in most major cities, whether or not you have the luxury of waiting depends on where you are going.  All destinations are not credit and debit card-friendly.

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Smart travelers arrive in country with at least enough local currency to get to their hotel and to have a meal or two without having to tap the ATM. Ideally,  carry enough to last until the next business day.  Having some local currency will buy you some time to get to a bank in case you have trouble with the ATM when you arrive or the currency exchange services are closed.  If you are not able to exchange cash ahead of time, suck it up and pay the higher fees to exchange money or use the ATM at the airport. Bottom line. Don’t leave the airport without it.

Be prepared for medical expenses.  I’ve used hospitals or clinics in 5 different countries for everything from tooth aches to food poisoning and they all wanted to know before any treatment was provided, how I was planning to pay.  In one country, I was even asked to go pay in advance for the treatment while my husband waited with our toddler who was struggling to dislodge a marble from his throat.  Cash only. No exceptions.

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If you have an accident or illness while traveling, be prepared to pay for your healthcare up front.  Even if you have purchased traveler’s insurance, the facility might not accept it.  This doesn’t mean you should forego the insurance. If you have insurance (highly recommended), you can file a claim to the insurance company for reimbursement.

Carry along additional security.  Three simple things will keep you safer while traveling:  a door wedge, a decoy purse or wallet, and a flashlight.  If your hotel room door does not have an extra latch to prevent people from coming in, a rubber wedge placed under your door will buy you some time in the case of an intrusion.  A decoy purse or wallet holding nothing of value or a little cash, will give persistent thieves something to steal.  Conceal your real money and phone in a belt under your clothes.  A flashlight is helpful in developing countries prone to power outages.  One that telescopes or has a long handle can double as a baton.  These items don’t weigh much and will all fit in a carry-on bag.

Avoid using the room safe.  Using the hotel room safe is a better option than carrying all of your valuables with you or trying to hide them in your luggage in your room.  But there are times when the hotel’s safe is unsafe.  They are easy to break into, can be carried off, and the staff have a master code that can override your own code.  When in doubt, ask the hotel staff to put your items in their office’s safe.  Make sure you get a receipt for the items you leave in their care.

Pack useful carry-on bags.  Carry-on luggage should only contain items you can’t afford to loose, fragile items, and things that will keep you comfortable for at least a day.

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Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on

If your checked luggage does not arrive when you do, you will be glad that you have these things:

  • Items you don’t want to loose – Passport, money, phone/electronic devices and chargers, keys, important documents, itinerary copies, emergency contacts
  • A complete change of clothes, including outwear appropriate for the weather
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Medications
  • Personal hygiene items
  • A flashlight
  • Travel pillow/ blanket
  • High protein snacks
  • Empty water bottle
  • Travel adapter for electronics
  • A good book

If it is not on this list, it belongs in a checked bag.

Allow enough time between layovers.  Booking a flight with a short layover is tempting because they are usually cheaper.  And who doesn’t like short layovers?  Meet Kim. Kim got a good deal on a flight from Los Angeles to Miami with a 50 minute layover in Atlanta.  Although her flight arrived to Atlanta on time, the airplane taxied for 30 minutes before letting passengers off. It took her another 20 minutes of sprinting to get to the connection terminal, arriving winded and too late.  Forced to depart the next day,  Kim had missed her sister’s engagement brunch, which she had been looking forward to for months.

Photo by Oleg Magni on

Don’t be like Kim.  Unless you are really familiar with your layover airport and are sure you can make a short connection, avoid layovers that are less than an hour on domestic flights and fewer than 2 hours when flying internationally.  Any shorter than this is a risk. Long security lines, distance between terminals (especially if reaching your connection requires a shuttle ride), or your own flight being delayed can cause you to miss your connection.

Leave an itinerary with someone. Let someone know where you are going, when you will get there, and where you plan to sleep.  American travelers can take it a step further and register their trip with the Embassy or Consulate in the country they are traveling to through STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) run by the Department of State.   STEP helps you receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, helps the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency (natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency) and STEP helps family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.


No one plans to be stuck in the airport, have their wallet stolen or fall down the stairs while on vacation. But taking a few simple steps will help you handle unexpected situations in stride.


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